‘Meat Joy’ is a work of performance art by feminist artist Carolee Schneemann. It harnesses the franticness of kinetic theatre with playful, yet disturbing, sexual and sensual overtones. A group of underwear-clad male and female performers writhe around on a white sheet. They practice synchronised dances. They fall around in tangles of limbs and bare flesh. They get frantic. They pour paint on each other. They throw raw fish and poultry and meat around like confetti. A recording of radio voices, nonsensical French words, and street noises play over the performance. ‘Meat Joy’ is baffling to watch, but the piece unveils itself as a fascinating journey of sexual ownership and human pleasure.
Recorded for the first time in 1964, Schneemann’s work coincides with the rise of sexual liberation. The performance itself poses a loose timeline; the beginning, where the participants hold themselves in quite a restrained manner, is almost politely innocent (the nudity takes away from its ability to be wholly innocent). This devolves slowly, and then quickly, into wet madness. The addition of raw meat evokes their human fleshiness, although there is a greasy sheen to the meat that proposes a subtle dichotomy of human and animal cleanliness. The initial ‘purity’ of their unmarked skin is sullied by splatters of colour. They go about their carnal ministrations with unrestricted delight, revelling in the pleasures of flesh (both human and animal) without fear of judgement.
It is slick and feral. It is disgusting and hypnotising. It is unfettered by politeness and taboo. It is, as the title suggests, joyous, in the strangest way. ‘Meat Joy’ oozes a fleshy and visceral energy, while simultaneously allowing us a glimpse of Schneemann’s view on the unabashed human experience of empowerment through sex.